Saturday, September 17, 2011

Day 3: Fossils, Basin & Range Geography, and Zion National Park

Rachel, NV
Zion National Park, UT
~230 miles


Despite the disappointing lack of alien sightings at the Little A'Le'Inn, we had a surprisingly pleasant time in Rachel, NV. We paid in the morning — it's still weird to me that they had no problem letting us to that. Nice, though.

We noticed that the motel sold postcards. Since we'd stayed in such an unusual location, and at the "urging" of the postcard stamps included in the travel journal that family friend Angie had given us as a wedding present, we decided to buy the postcards and mail them out to our parents and Angie.

Postcards are so much cheaper than we had expected! I had thought they would be like $2-3 a piece, but they're more like 5-50 cents, instead. Stamps are only 29 cents. So we figure, why not send a shitload of dimes postcards out? We're also mailing them to ourselves, so that we get at least one "good" professional photo of the places we stay at, even if our cameraphone and fancy-camera photos don't turn out.

An aside... One thing I wonder, is whether we'll notice the people being different around the country. The folks in Rachel did seem a little different from us, but in the same way that small-town or rural Californians are different from us. They didn't seem distinctly "Nevadan" in any way. Will people further out seem different somehow? We shall see.

Nevada Geography

So we headed out into central Nevada. We've certainly been to Nevada several times each, but mostly near the Sierras: Stateline, Minden, Virginia City, Reno, Las Vegas, Pahrump. But driving out through central and southern Nevada, this has been the first time we've really been able to see the basin and range for ourselves.

It's very clear why the geographic feature is so named. It also gets boring really fast: through a dry deserted desert valley, up and over a range, back through a valley, back up over a range, etc etc, until you hit Utah. Forrest declared that he had "cured [him]self of ever wanting to drive through central Nevada again." The landscape was pretty, in a desolate way, but there was a lot of it and nothing around.

And then we went over one final range, and suddenly we were driving through canyons (that looked just like Red Dead Redemption, I wonder why ;)). The vegetation changed from sage and other scrubby brush to piñon pine and such. It felt like we should be in a different state, the landscape changed so much.


Along the highway, we saw an "Oak Springs Trilobite Site" sign. This trip does have some planned points of interest, but we specifically want to be open to serendipitous discoveries. You might say that I am interested in dinosaours; as a kid, I read every single dinosaour book in my elementary school's library. So when we saw the sign, we had no choice but to turn off the highway and check it out. :)

This small dirt road lead out into the scrubby desert. Soon, we came to a small parking area with a sign explaining all about trilobites. We signed the guestbook, alonside the people who came to the site on September 11th because they were lost, and the locals who arrived on purpose ;) on September 14th to finally see what was at this area they'd driven past so many times.

From the sign (which included a topo map), we hiked down the third-of-a-mile trail to a huge pile of shale. It covered maybe 200 square feet of shale. We searched for trilobite fossils in the rocks, and by "searched" I mean we pushed around the top layer of shale with our shoes. Dedicated paleontologists, we aren't. :P

I was starting to suspect we wouldn't find any trilobites, either due to their rarity or previous hikers already having found and taken them all. I was ready to be bummed, although not especially surprised. Then we noticed a second pile of shale just a little further down the trail. This pile was maybe twice the size of the first one. I squatted in the shade of a pine and started systematically sifting through the shale, breaking open thicker rocks (as the info-sign had suggested) to look for fossils between the layers. I felt determined to really search, now that I'd been given this second chance of sorts.

Just when I was ready to give up a second time and declare the site a bust, Forrest hollered, from where he was still toeing through the rocks, "Found one!" And indeed, he had found the head section of a trilobite fossil. Not just a replica, but a real fossil. This bit of rock represented a critter than had really lived at the bottom of the ocean, hundreds of millions of years ago. I found it pretty exciting to be holding a real piece of ancient history, outside of a musuem and without the watchful eyes of some expert.

After a short debate, we decided to take the fossil back to the metal box that contained the guestbook, so that others could see at least one real fossil too. We took a photo for us to remember it by; it didn't seem right (or worth it for "just" a partial fossil) to take it away with us. As we were driving back out to the highway, another car passed us driving in to the site, which means that our found fossil got to be immediately enjoyed by a couple more people. Instant karma. :)

Driving Slowly Into Utah

Somewhere in Utah, I saw a super tall black and white cow. It was way taller than the other normal black or brown cows in the same lot. It was a little bit bigger too, but mostly it was just this extremely leggy cow. I wasn't fast enough to take its picture, so I have drawn you an accurate rendition instead, for your viewing pleasure.

We also saw a super slow driver. So slow, in fact, that a fifth-wheel passed him. Unfortunately, our 4-cylinder Tacoma just doesn't have the oomph to pass vehicles on uphills. Our pickup doesn't have the pick-up, you might say. :P So we followed behind this guy for miles. Miles, I tell you. Forrest was Not Happy.

While stuck behind this driver in the Pine Valley Mountains of Utah, Forrest told me about some movie that Clint Eastwood John Wayne had been in, or directed, or something.1 It had been filmed in one of the canyons nearby, which also happens to be an area where downwind of where the government had done some nuclear testing in Nevada earlier. The area is now generally safe, except that sometimes radiation accumulates in places like canyons. So the film crew, who shot much of the movie in a canyon, ended up later in life with a much higher rate of cancer than you would otherwise expect. :(

St George, UT

We finally made it into the first proper city in Utah, St George. We needed some groceries for dinner, new supplies of ice for the cooler, briquettes for the Dutch oven, etc.

We found the Hurst General Store, where we bought much of our camping supply needs. One of the cashiers helped me mail some things, find the briquettes, and checked us out. We got to chatting, and she said she'd always wanted to go to New Brunswick, our final destination. Her mother was from Saskatchewan, so she'd seen that area of Canada quite a bit, but she'd never been out to eastern Canada yet. In the parking lot afterward, Forrest and I decided we'd like to send her a postcard when we make it out there. :)

Then it was back on the road again, destination Zion National Park. Nothing eventful happened on the drive there, although we did see a vending machine that sold ice by the bag or block, and a dozen ostriches in a corral.

Zion National Park

Just outside of Zion National Park, Forrest spotted a sign for a motel advertising the fact that they had a big screen TV to watch videos of the park. Let me repeat that for you, in case you don't believe I meant what I said. This motel, right next to an amazingly beautiful national park, thinks you want to watch a movie of said park, rather than see it yourself. And they must be right, because their parking lot was not at all empty.

But I must agree with Forrest's initial commentary: "What??"

As for us, we were hoping to camp in the park. Alas, we ended up in the park on a Saturday, and all the campgrounds were full. Worse, it was getting on to sunset, so we only had a little bit of time to see anything of the park. And while we would have loved more time to hike around the park, we did get to see the amazingly impressive towers, spires, and peaks in the beautiful light of the setting sun. Photos just don't capture the "loominess" of the towering rocks, nor the beauty of the rich orange and pink light on them. It's one of those things you really do have to see for yourself.

So we drove along the road through the middle of the park, enjoying the views as much as we could. We went through a mile-long tunnel, built in the 20's. It was extremely dark and narrow — it reminded me of the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland, in fact.

On the other side of the tunnel, it was the darker end of twilight. We saw a trail from the small parking lot at the end of the tunnel. Some people were hiking down from it. We could see that there was a lookout ledge just in view, which would only take a minute or two to hike up to. The entire trail was a half mile, so we wouldn't get to see the "proper" lookout, but we figured we'd see what we could from the short lookout.

We hiked up to that small ledge we had seen, and got a decent view overlooking a small canyon. On the way back, we chatted with an older couple from the Grand Rapids, MI area who had done the full half-mile half and some "Angel's Landing" trail that sounded a lot like the Half Dome experience. They were a friendly couple, and we wished each other the best on our travels.

Camping with Jason & Andrew

The road continued through the park, where the terrain changed from towering spires to deep canyons and scrubby pines. Just outside the park boundaries, we ran into a private campground with plenty of available tent sites, for just $20, which included showers and laundry.

Our campsite-neighbors were two brothers, Jason from Colorado and Andrew from DC. They were friendly and let us join them at their campfire. Jason asked us if we "blazed," and while I was busy being confused, Forrest politely said, "No, thank you." Then I realized what he must have meant, and was glad Forrest had declined the offer. :P

We got to chatting with them about our trip, and how our next stop (after the slot canyons in Arizona) would be Colorado. Since that was where Jason was from, he suggested we take the road from Durango up through the Rockies to Montrose. He said it was one of his favorite drives in the state. We were already planning on going to Durango because of the Roadfood book, so we'll probably take his advice. (After confirming via a map that it's not a crazy suggestion, that is.)

We cooked up some dried bow-tie pasta with basil pesto for dinner. (We ended up with basil pesto because there was no plain pesto2, nor fresh pasta, at Smith's grocery store in Utah, which also had the tiniest organic section I've ever seen; we were clearly not in hippy-California any more.) We had also bought some garlic bread, but we decided not to cook it after all because it was dark already and we didn't feel like messing with it or waiting for briquettes or embers.

When we finished eating and chatting with the brothers and the fire died down, we headed to bed for our first night sleeping in the truck. We had to keep the tail gate down for two reason: 1) to keep the interior from getting all humid and condensation-y, and 2) to give Forrest's 6'2" self enough room. It was a pleasant evening, though, so that didn't cause any problems. The three-inch-thick foam mattress was as comfortable as I remembered it being in the store, my zero-degree (heavy, car-camping-only) sleeping bag was as warm as I remembered it, and my new Target-acquired pillows were sufficiently comfy. All in all, it had been a good day and a good night's sleep awaited.

  1. Forrest informed me after I posted this that the movie in question is The Conqueror. He also says, "It's not a problem today because the high intensity stuff has all decayed by now."

  2. Forrest also says that "basil pesto" == "normal pesto". Hrmph. Sneaky basil.